Monday, August 13, 2012

Review: Water for Elephants

In these hot, humid, dog days of summer, reading shouldn't be too taxing. That's not to say that it shouldn't have substance. Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants straddles the line beautifully. It's a compelling story full of memorable characters that doesn't lose momentum or pander to the reader.
Water for Elephants opens at the end of the story, introducing us to the protagonist (Jacob) when he is a young man who joins the circus when circumstances rip his planned path from him. The present of the story is the protagonist as an old man ("Ninety or ninety-three"), slowly losing his mind and living in an assisted living facility. The sections of the book that focus on Jacob in his later years are heartbreaking. Gruen clearly did her homework and portrays Jacob's loss of independence and memory with a tender touch. She may at times veer into the sentimental, but only for a moment. This book should be required reading for anyone who works with the elderly, to remind them that the residents they so desultorily care for are actual human beings with feelings and rich histories. Luckily, Jacob has Rosemary, an aide who allows him to make decisions and retain some independence, while gently leading him toward better choices.
The real pull of the story comes when Jacob falls into memory. The story opens as a circus sets up across the street from the home. Seeing the tent reminds Jacob of the summer during the depression when he found himself working on a small-time circus as the vet. Again, Gruen has done her homework. The scenery of the time is vivid. The hungry men hoping for work, the desperate measures that must be taken to keep the show going. Sadly, the treatment of animals in the circus doesn't seem to have improved, but Jacob cares deeply for the animals. Seeing their treatment from his perspective allows Gruen to hold nothing back.
Love of animals brings Jacob close with a performer on the show, Marlena. Marlena fights for her horses and does whatever she views as right. Gruen avoids creating a one-dimensional "feisty" character by giving Marlena hard choices. Make no mistake, this is a love story, but one fraught with peril and danger. Since the reader also sees Jacob as an old man, the reader also knows that Marlena is no longer with him. Adding some mystery and suspense to the story.
This book embodies summer reading. Never boring, well written, and with loads of history (feel like you're learning something!), Water for Elephants will have you wishing you could hop a train and ride the rails, hanging around with chimps and horses. As long as you were a performer, of course. They get all the breaks!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Pro Tips: Submission

When I started submitting work in ernest, shortly after starting my MFA program, I presumed that everyone else was doing it. Man, I must sound like such a follower, saying that after admitting I went to a male strip show because "everyone else was doing it," but I swear I'm not. In the case of school, I'm competitive. I knew my work was at least as good as the work of my classmates, and if they were brave enough to send out stories, I should be too. Turns out though, I was talking to a precious few who regularly send out work. Since I started submitting, I've met more classmates who have yet to send out anything than those who have been published. So, in the interest of budding writers everywhere, tips for submitting. Notice I did not say, "Tips for Getting Published." I've only had one story accepted so far. But I've submitted plenty. It's not scary. It's actually exhilarating, in a way.

1. Sign up for Duotrope. Not only can you track all of your submissions using this site, but you can also find markets, see how long it takes for them to respond, and see how your brethren are doing (that rejection from the New Yorker stings a little less when you see that they only accept 0.00% of submissions (of course, Duotrope is careful to point out that no magazine has 0% acceptance, but I suspect the New Yorker is able to simply ask anyone they like for work).

2. Make your own spreadsheet too. Duotrope is awesome. I'm not denying that. But so is my own spreadsheet. I have fields for when I submitted, to where, which story, estimated response time, notes (invited to resubmit, contest), acceptance/rejection, and date I heard back. I like seeing at a glance who asked me to send more work and who sent me a blank piece of paper as a rejection (true story). You can make whatever fields you like in your own spreadsheet. Duotrope is especially useful for seeing if it's okay to pester a magazine about your submission, but it doesn't include a field for whether something was a contest, or what your username and password is for the magazine's site.

3. Make your list. That's right, your list. Decide which magazines you most want to see your work in, and submit there first. Not the place where you think your work could fit, not the places you think would take it, but your personal end of the rainbow. The places where, as you send, you think, "Yeah, right." It only takes one reader to believe in you. Take that chance. Submit to the New Yorker or the Paris Review, or the Atlantic Monthly. And when if they all reject your work...

4. Go to your 2nd tier. Set up tiers of submission. I use groups of five. "Yeah right." "As if." "Maybe." "Definitely possible." "Probably." "For sure." "Revise." I heard about one author who, after receiving seven rejections, decides a revision is necessary. What I learned from this is that you can use rejections as a workshop-like tool. Before you submit your way down to Shovel Enthusiast Quarterly, consider that maybe the story needs a little extra something.

5. Grow a Thick Skin. And I mean rhino thick. Elephant thick. T-Rex Thick. You are going to get rejected hundreds of times. Literally. Hundreds. You have to believe in your heart that is okay. Someone, someday, is going to read your work and love it. They're going to believe in it. They're going to ask you for more. It's going to happen. It only takes one person. Keep going. Keep trying. Don't stop.